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Farewell Thoughts
2013년 09월 03일 (화) 11:55:17 GLOBE globe@jbnu.ac.kr

As I write this, I am preparing to return to the United States after two years teaching in Korea. For the last six months or so I’ve reflected a lot about my time here and why I’ve decided to leave. I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

When I interviewed for my first job here I was asked, “Why do you want to work in Korea?”

Knowing this question was coming, I had prepared for the answer. I told the interviewer about my friend who had lived in Suwon for 2 years and constantly talked about how much he loved it. I told her about how I had taken Taekwondo when I was young and had become interested in Korean culture. I told my prospective employer about how, as a teacher, I respected the zeal for education that exists in Korea. However, during the interview I only briefly mentioned the primary reason for my coming to Korea, because it had little to do with the country itself.

I came to Korea because I have always had an itch for experiencing something new. I’ve always been fascinated by cultural exchange. Korea offered me the opportunity to immerse myself in a world where previously mundane events would leave me wide-eyed with a silly grin on my face.

Korea certainly provided what I’d hoped for. During my first year in Korea everything was something to write home about. Every aisle in the convenience store was a revelation, every meal at a restaurant left me giddy. Every word of Hangeul successfully pronounced and understood by a native speaker put an extra bit of swagger in my step.

Being a part of Korean culture, finding things that I love about it, and making connections with people here is one of the purest joys I’ve ever experienced. Building a rapport with my students over the course of a semester has been especially rewarding. It’s difficult to describe my appreciation for my experience without sounding cheesy or cliché; but Korea certainly provided me with what I was searching for.

However, between my first and second year in Korea I decided that it was time for me to go home. One reason was a desire to be closer to my family. My father had recently passed away and the importance and fragility of family became foremost in my mind. Another reason was that I realized that Korea was lacking the one thing that drove me here in the first place…diversity.

Korea, for all its values, is an extremely homogenous society. After a year here, I realized I really missed easy access to variety: things like distinct architecture, exotic cuisines and divergent viewpoints. While I think that diversity exists in Korea to some extent, it can be pretty difficult for a foreigner to find. Growing up in Southern California, I had taken diversity for granted.

While the United States has certainly struggled (to put it mildly) and continues to struggle with racial and ethnic diversity, in California I feel like it’s different. I think that for California’s diversity has always been a source of pride. In Los Angeles and San Diego we constantly brag that we have the best Mexican food in the country. Other Americans concede that it’s the best because it’s authentic: made by Mexicans. Just this simple fact, that a region in America prides itself on the cuisine and people from another country, tells you a lot about my home state. In Southern California we have Little Tokyo, Little Saigon, Little Italy, Korea Town, Chinatown, El Pueblo (a Mexican neighborhood), Little India…I think you get the point. These places are destinations for many Californians: places that you take your friends who come to visit to show them how cool your city is. Each neighborhood has its distinct style, yet is clearly Californian. How wonderful that I can spend a Wednesday evening surrounded by the unique and mysterious and then spend the next surrounded by family and home cooking.

Of course, in my nostalgic romanticism I’ve oversimplified the dynamics of life in California. Diversity causes tension and brings out ugliness in people. One need only look at the front page of the Los Angeles Times to see that, but, from where I stand, diversity also creates a whole lot of beauty.

Until I left California, I didn’t realize that the state’s diversity probably fostered my desire to travel and experience new things. So while I’ll always treasure and remember my life in Korea, I feel like I need to acknowledge that huge part of myself that took me here to begin with.

Two weeks from the day I write this will be my last day in Korea. I met wonderful people. I gained insight and experience that only fractions of people from my part of the world are fortunate enough to gain. I took what was offered and tried to give something back in the classroom. I’m extremely lucky to have spent two years of my life here.

Maybe nowhere will ever be good enough. I wonder about that sometimes: whether or not I can ever be content in one place, or if I’ll always need to seek the horizon to be at my happiest. But, then I remember that somewhere in Los Angeles there’s a Korean restaurant that sits on a street named after a Spanish king where Mexican cooks prepare kimchijjigae for Chinese customers, and I think that maybe this time I’ll stay.

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